Rookie of the Year is dead; long live Young Player of the Year.
MLS announced this timely change on Wednesday, another formal signal of the writing that’s already been on the wall for a while now: This league is quickly and eagerly growing younger.
So now that YPOTY is here, which young’uns are the most likely to win its inaugural edition? The following is my rundown of the top five contenders – and I’ve devoted more time than usual to the “honorable mention” section, because narrowing down my list to that number was a real bear, which says something about just what a breakthrough year it’s been for the “Play Your Kids” movement.
5) Ayo Akinola, Forward, Toronto FC
8 goals, 0 assists in 888 MLS minutes (9 starts)
TFC’s 20-year-old Homegrown striker has been unplayable at times this season, reeling off goals in bunches, including five in two games at the MLS is Back Tournament, despite missing significant minutes to a hamstring problem.
A fitting heir to Jozy Altidore in several ways, Akinola boasts similar power and hunger, and a rapidly-developing nose for the subtler skills in a modern frontrunner’s arsenal. A tri-eligible at international level (Canada, Nigeria, USA), he’s the subject of keen interest as John Herdman looks to pry him away from the United States setup where he’s spent his youth national team career to date.
Akinola needs a strong finish to the season to vault past the others ahead of him on this list and it’s unclear how that will dovetail with Toronto’s pursuit of the Supporters’ Shield.
4) Mark McKenzie, Defender, Philadelphia Union
2 goals, 3 assists in 1,710 MLS minutes (19 starts); participated in 8 clean sheets
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’ll be surprised if the voters give a defender the nod this year, given the gaudy attacking stats others are racking up. But that’s no fault of McKenzie’s, who has been a dominant center back in just about every sense for the current Shield leaders.
A closely-watched target of European transfer interest, the Homegrown from Delaware has been the backline yin to Brenden Aaronson’s creative yang as Philly’s academy revolution hits full stride. However long he may stay with the Union, he’ll become a club legend if he can lead them to their first-ever trophy this fall.
3) Brian Rodriguez, Forward, LAFC
2 goals, 7 assists in 1,288 MLS minutes (16 starts)
There’s a general sense that El Rayito (“Little Lightning”) has yet to truly show his top level in MLS, which puts his productive 2020 output in a different and even more menacing context. While potential is now a far bigger topic in MLS circles than it once was, the 20-year-old Uruguayan is racking up numbers NOW and has already notched six senior caps for his country, scoring three goals along the way.
Blessed with pace, aggression and a shifty skillset that makes him useful both out wide and up top, Rodriguez is expected to fetch a pretty penny at some point in the near to medium term, and he might just hoist some more hardware with LAFC along the way.
2) Brenden Aaronson, Midfielder, Philadelphia
4 goals, 6 assists in 1,651 MLS minutes (20 starts)
The top finisher on this season’s MLSsoccer.com 22 Under 22 list, Aaronson has exploded onto the scene in 2020 after a promising first MLS campaign a year ago. “The Medford Messi” has paced the Union’s climb to the top of the league table with performances that personify Philly’s hard-working, high-intensity pressing identity, and both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup hover in their sights.
He’s already earned a club-record transfer deal (for a $6 million fee that could rise to $9 mil with performance bonuses) to Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg that will take effect this winter. Though his senior international career is still in its infancy, fans of the US men’s national team are already drooling over his prospect for continued growth under the tutelage of American coach Jesse Marsch and the rest of the Red Bull global hierarchy.
1) Diego Rossi, Forward, LAFC
12 goals, 3 assists in 1,428 MLS minutes (16 starts)
Again: While many on this list have captivated imaginations with their upside, LAFC’s Uruguayans have been doing the business in real-time for one of the league’s elite teams. Rossi has been prolific since he arrived in MLS with LAFC two years ago, scoring double digits in all three of his seasons to date and helping the Black & Gold hoist the 2019 Shield.
Rossi’s movement, technique and soccer IQ are elite and he’s piled up 40g/19a over his brief MLS career with coldly clinical execution in front of goal. Sure, it helps that he’s usually had the irrepressible Carlos Vela on the opposite flank, but that equation can just as easily be flipped on its head: It’s unlikely that Vela breaks a book full of records en route to 2019 league MVP honors without Rossi.
He, too, is probably not long for these shores, projected to merit an eight-figure transfer deal to a European buyer once Bob Bradley and the LAFC brain trust decide it’s time.
I agonized over the final two spots on the above list, because the following players have not only been standout contributors for playoff-level teams but also reflect the diversity of means by which young talent is streaming into MLS.
Bagging 5g/3a in 970 MLS minutes for resurgent Orlando City, Daryl Dike has shown why he was one of the top commodities at the SuperDraft after signing a Generation adidas contract over the winter. He didn’t take the field until late August and seems a good bet to keep improving at a steep trajectory in the months ahead, even if he’s a step behind the top five at present.
His GA and SuperDraft classmate Henry Kessler has been perhaps the most surprising rookie success story, becoming a nailed-on starter at center back for Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution with heady decision-making and reading of the game. It’s a set of contributions that probably just isn’t quite spectacular enough to overcome the YPOTY odds.
Finally, Gianluca Busio was also a very tough cut, given how versatile he’s been in the Sporting KC midfield and how much the US youth international has progressed since signing his Homegrown deal at age 15. Holding the benefit of an Italian passport thanks to his father’s heritage, he’s already drawn several transfer bids from big clubs, with Sporting intent on making the most of the crown jewel in their ambitious academy project.